This is what the dream feels like, This is the victory we longed for.
- Niko Bellic, Grand Theft Auto IV
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What is the American Dream? The equality of people, where, with hard work and wise ideas, everyone can thrive, where personal liberty and independence is protected. America is always seen as a beacon, a land of opportunity. People from all across the world go to the States and hope to build their own American Dream. Some succeed, like Shadiq Khan who came from Pakistan at the age of 16. He worked hard, had bright ideas, and he took over the automotive manufacturing company Flex-N-Gate. By 2011, Flex-N-Gate had 12,450 employees and 48 manufacturing plants in the United States and several other countries and in 2018 had a revenue of $8.3 billion and was ranked as the 49th largest privately-held American company by Forbes. It is also ranked by Automotive News as the 7th largest American automotive parts supplier and overall 33rd largest supplier in the world. Khan is also the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL and Fulham F.C. of the Premier League. Not every immigrant is like Khan. Many only flounder in the states, looking for their dream which never came.
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The deconstruction of the American Dream is always a topic for some great fiction. The Great Gatsby is essentially the model. Many books, shows and movies do the same. Almost every mafia movie is this trope. An immigrant looking for success is essentially the plot of the Vito side of the Godfather II. Scarface is another example, actually most mafia and mob movies deconstructed the American Dream. People coming to the States to look for more, to find opportunity, to reach their dream. When in reality, they become disillusioned and lost in the endless state of crime. Your stereotypical mobster, contract killer and criminal for hire are not your run of the mill dude raised in a well off family. No, they are foreigners looking for a chance to break big, to make a name for themselves.
That brings us to Grand Theft Auto 4. In a world full of over the top video games, where players went from batting Aliens to Hell devils, I am looking at you Saints Row 4, Grand Theft Auto IV delivers a grounded story with compelling characters, great tone, excellent social commentary and above all else an incredibly thrilling experience. In a world full of upbeat stories with sunny endings, Grand Theft Auto IV delivers us an incredible tragedy.
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The sixth generation of consoles, in the original Xbox and Playstation 2 delivered plenty of classics, GTA San Andreas, Shadow of the Colossus, Halo 2, Metal Gear Solid 3. But by 2005, their lack of processing power, graphical fidelity and online capability had made them obsolete, the seventh generation came with the release of the Xbox 360 back in 2005. This generation change is the driving force of a new trend. In the early days, it was 2D platformers and first person shooters and now it is games as a service and huge open world games. But in the Xbox 360 and PS3 era, it was story driven third person shooters, starting at the success of Gears of War, Uncharted and Bioshock in 2007, and climaxes at Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us at the end of the line for the seventh generation. Another huge context for the tone and story of Grand Theft Auto 4 is the popularisation of prestige television shows. The Sopranos, The Wire and The West Wing are good examples. These shows are moody, well written and always end with tragedy. Grand Theft Auto is always a very culturally sensitive series. The games are very similar to the media of the time they are set in. GTA Vice City is extremely similar to Scarface and other 80s mafia movies, they even got Ray Liotta, the guy who played the main character in Goodfellas to voice the protagonist, and other mafia movie veterans like William Fitchner and Burt Reynolds voice important characters as well. GTA San Andreas follows this trope as well. It is a street gang movie, like Boyz n the Hood. They also got period accurate actors to voice roles as well, with Samuel L. Jackson voiced the main antagonist. GTA IV obviously took a lot of inspiration from these shows. From the middle aged protagonist, to the moody setting, to the tragic end. It is very similar to the prestige drama on HBO. The game also took on more third person shooter mechanics, like a cover system or the ability to blind fire, which is widely praised.
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Despite the power of the new console, most games have to go through an overhaul to be put on the system, especially the PS3, which was notoriously hard to code for. Madden NFL is a prime example. A whole host of features, like create a team, the career mode and etc. was removed for Madden 06, which was its first venture into the new system; the game did not recover its lost feature completely until Madden 12. GTA 4 is no exception. GTA San Andreas is the game when it comes to features. It is filled to the brim with side activities, Basketball, Pool, Horse betting, lowrider bumping, dancing, darts, off road race, oval race, etc. Most of them are lost during the transition, all that is left is races. The game is a more streamlined and linear experience. These two words have a hate level similar to EA for gamers. I have seen these words a lot in criticisms. Max Payne 3 and the later Call of Duty games. But is it a bad thing? Not really. It can make the game much more focused both in gameplay and narrative. It can avoid players being lost in both the gameplay and story. Call of Duty Ghost’s large map made countless players get lost, the narrative of Destiny is convoluted and chaotic. A linear game, as long as you have a killer narrative, can be great. The aforementioned Max Payne 3 is a good example. GTA IV lost a lot of features, but is it a bad game?
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No, of course not.
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Let’s talk about the narrative first. Niko Bellic, an Eastern European ex-soldier, arrives in Liberty City aboard a cargo ship, the Platypus, to escape his criminal past, pursue the American Dream, and search for the man who betrayed his unit in a war ten years prior. Reuniting with his cousin Roman, he discovers that his tales of riches were lies concealing his small dirty apartment, unprofitable taxi company, gambling debts, and disputes with loan sharks. Niko begins assisting Roman with his problems, which leads him to make his first criminal contacts in the city. He befriends Yardies underboss Little Jacob and is forced to work for Vlad Glebov, Roman's Russian loan shark, whom Niko eventually kills upon learning he had slept with Roman's girlfriend Mallorie.
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In retaliation, Niko and Roman are kidnapped by Russian mobsters on orders of their boss Mikhail Faustin and his lieutenant, Dimitri Rascalov. Indifferent to Vlad's murder, Faustin employs Niko as a hitman, eventually ordering him to kill the son of Russian crime lord Kenny Petrović. When Petrović threatens retaliation, Dimitri convinces Niko to assassinate Faustin. However, he then betrays and brings Niko to his former employer, Ray Bulgarin, who accuses Niko of stealing from him during a botched human trafficking job years earlier. Niko denies the allegation and a firefight ensues, allowing Dimitri and Bulgarin to escape.
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Niko and Roman's apartment and taxi company are burned down by Dimitri's men, and they are forced to flee to Bohan. While Niko finds work for local drug lords, Dimitri kidnaps Roman in a failed attempt to lure Niko into a trap. Later, Niko discovers that his girlfriend Michelle is a government agent, and she traps him into working for her agency, the United Liberty Paper. In exchange for the assassinations of several known or suspected terrorists, the agency clears Niko's criminal record and searches for the traitor he seeks. Niko and Roman's fortunes improve when the latter receives a large amount of insurance money from his destroyed business, which he uses to rebuild it and buy an apartment in Algonquin. Roman also proposes to Mallorie, who accepts.
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While working for the Irish Mob, Niko befriends gangster Patrick McReary and helps him and his brothers carry out a bank robbery. Niko is later hired by Ray Boccino, a caporegime in the Pegorino crime family, to oversee a diamond deal, which goes awry. Boccino repays Niko by helping him find ex-comrade Florian Cravic, now known as Bernie Crane, who claims that he did not betray their unit; Niko concludes that the traitor was Darko Brevic. Niko continues working for the Mafia in Liberty City, and eventually earns the trust of Don Jimmy Pegorino after killing Boccino, who was suspected of being a police informant. Niko also helps Patrick kidnap Don Giovanni Ancelotti's daughter to ransom her for the diamonds, but the exchange is intercepted by Bulgarin and the diamonds are lost.
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Eventually, the Paper finds Darko and brings him to Liberty City for Niko to decide his fate. Having achieved closure on his past, Niko is summoned by Pegorino for one final favour: to help with an extremely lucrative heroin deal in collusion with Dimitri. Niko must either strike the deal with Dimitri, or exact revenge on him.
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Should Niko go through with the deal, Dimitri again betrays him and keeps the heroin for himself. At Roman's wedding, an assassin sent by Dimitri accidentally kills Roman with a stray bullet. Aided by Little Jacob, a devastated Niko murders Dimitri, who in turn had killed Pegorino. Later, Mallorie informs Niko that she is pregnant with Roman's child, whom Niko vows to protect. Should Niko choose to exact revenge, he finds and kills Dimitri aboard the Platypus. At Roman's wedding, Pegorino, furious at Niko's betrayal, targets him in a drive-by shooting, and accidentally kills Niko's new girlfriend, Patrick's sister Kate. Aided by Little Jacob and Roman, Niko tracks down and kills Pegorino. Later, Roman tells Niko that Mallorie is pregnant and that they decided to name the baby after Kate if it is a girl.
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Grand Theft Auto 4 drew the ire of many fans of the series, because of its tone. Vice City and San Andreas, as great as they are, are very campy and over the top. However, for GTA 4, the story is a lot more serious and grounded. It still got its comedic bits, but they are few and far between. The major element is the ending. A lot of spoilers ahead for every GTA game since GTA 3. Vice City is an homage to 80s B movies, Tommy Vercetti’s goal is to become the biggest Kingpin in Vice City, and he, at the end, kills every single adversary in a perfectly 80s standoff, and dominates the drug supply of the city. In San Andreas, CJ’s goal is to revive his street gang family and retake the turf across the state. At the end, CJ succeeds in reuniting Grove Street and becomes the king of San Andreas gangs. In GTA V, the character’s motivations are much less defined. Franklin wants to be a real gangster, Michael wants to pay off his debts and move away from a life of crime and Trevor, well, Trevor was just a crazy dude along for the ride. However, the characters succeed in their end goal. They pull the greatest heist ever and stare at the sunset after killing off every single villain. Notice something in common? Despite different setbacks, betrayals and supporting characters dying, all of the protagonists have a good ending, they did what they set out to do, with little long term impact. They essentially glorify the violence and criminal action that these characters do. They are power fantasies for people. Is that a bad thing? No, but when it is not done well, it can severely lower the stakes of the story. The only game where there are lasting consequences for the characters is GTA 3 and 4. Claude, the protagonist in GTA 3 and Niko Bellic are the protagonists who went through the most pain and whose name is not Max Payne. No matter how you choose, there is no good ending for Niko. He fails to protect those he loved and cared about no matter what the player did. No matter if the player steps out of the violence and takes the deal, or stays with the violent ways, someone close to Niko will die. This inevitability of dread is what makes this story impressive. Once you are in the life of crime, there is no way you can come out unscafed. It's like a sinkhole, you just can't escape no matter how hard you try. This is the same reason why so many people were touched by Red Dead Redemption 2, the inevitable sadness. Life often does not end in a happy, fairytale ending, many people try to make a difference and try to get to top, even if they succeed, they would end up losing part of themselves.
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This atmosphere shines through every single moment and component of the game. The most obvious is the design of the city. Each Rockstar game is filled with style. The neon lights of VIce City, the filthiness of Sao Paulo, the colourfulness of Los Santos, the wilderness of the West, the billboards of Las Venturas, every single game is oozing with style. Liberty City is no different, each district has its own personality, from the skyscrapers of Algonquin to the Russian Neighbourhood of Broker to the condos of Dukes and the suburbs of Alderney, each place is drastically different, yet they all share a similarity. The color palette of them are mainly brown, grey, and black. It all contributes to the moody atmosphere that suits Niko’s tragedy perfectly. Another factor contributing to this atmosphere is the weather. The streets and skyline of Liberty City looks gorgeous in the rain, which is a very frequent occurrence in the campaign. The game still looks really good in 2021. It is no Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Last of Us 2, but it holds up really well. I seldom talk about character design in these reviews, as I am really terrible at arts. However, the character design of this game suits the tone as well. Unlike characters that come before or after them, like Gay Tony or Tommy Vercetti, there is no character who dress like a butterfly. The default clothing of almost all characters are really plain, namely just jackets with a really simple pattern. They are also in the same color pallet as well. So, the game looks extra miserable.
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The atmosphere can not only be felt through art design, the dialogue is the key to the puzzle as well. Each GTA game before and after GTA 4 sans GTA 3 have a very over the top storyline, and they would attempt comedy by laughing at the absurdity of the situation they find themselves in and poke fun at the world around them. GTA games are filled with cynicism and at some points, nihilism. Sometimes it works, and works well, San Andreas and Vice City are incredibly fun thrill rides with excellent characters and setpieces. Notice that I used the word “fun” to describe them. Unlike Neil Druckmann who hates the word “fun”, I have no problem with it. However, when it fails to land, aka GTA V or more recently, Borderlands 3, it can either be a borefest or a cringefest. Moreover, this approach often comes with a sacrifice of tension, as the abundance of jokes may diffuse a lot of the tension that a thriller needs. This is what I disliked the most of Marvel movies, the jokes simply become too much that it is impossible to take the world and its characters seriously at all. Grand Theft Auto IV used a vastly different approach. There are not many jokes in the game, most of them come from Roman, but they are much, much drier and darker than other installments. The Prestige drama comparison makes more sense here. As serious as The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and Better Call Saul were, they still have lighthearted moments to help the viewers control their blood pressure. However, these stories are deeply serious at heart and are very rooted in reality. Grand Theft Auto IV comes as close as most games where a sandbox is provided to a player can come. Ludonarrative dissonance is always considered a big issue here. Niko claims he wants to abandon his ways of killing and violence in the past, yet the player can aimlessly slaughter everyone in the NYPD or blow up buses on the streets or ram civilians on the sidewalks. This freedom will create a very weird feeling for players. However, that actually makes sense within the setting of the character. Niko is always a bitter hypocrite. He said he wants to go to the states for peace, to let go of past life. However, he actually came to track down his former comrade who sold them out during the war. Being a hypocrite is a key part of Niko’s character and the mayhem the player wrecks is part of the character development for Niko. Offering more freedom often results in serious ludonarrative dissonance, however GTA IV avoids this problem.
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Why does this tone shift happen? It is because of the theme this game talks about. The dissection of the American Dream. America is a country built by immigrants. From the British, the Dutch and the French in the colonial days, to the Italians and the Irish before the two wars, to people all across the world after World War 2. Most Americans have ancestors coming from the opposite side of the Atlantic. Why do they go to America? The United States is a land of opportunity. Those who want a fresh start, those who want to make a living and make a name for themselves come to this land. From the artists and the architects of the past to the programmers and engineers of the present, those who have the opportunity and the ability to nail the opportunities will find a place here. However, a lot of them don’t, their lives lie stagnant as they can not find the greener pastures they were promised in the states. They stay in their region and their lives change little. American Dream is only an ideal, what people want the society to be, what people want to experience, but is it true for the majority of people coming? No, not really. The American Dream for most is merely a facade. The most interesting portrayal of this in Grand Theft Auto IV is at the beginning. Niko was told by his cousin Roman that his life in America is incredible, with a successful business, and living in a huge mansion, surrounded by countless hot women. However, when Niko arrived in Liberty City, he found Roman living in a cockroach infested condo, leading a struggling cab business with Russian loan sharks hot on his tail. Some may consider the American livestyle and character and positive thing, but some may think its shallow, materialistic and dumb. Those who fake their lives to promote their image, to make themselves look better to outsiders. Is it worth it, no. Roman’s reckless spending and gambling addiction leads off the story. This American Way of living covers up a lot of the blemishes in our lives, however, no matter how many paints are used to cover the cracks, they are still here. Is this life what we want? This is just a lie. Part of the American Dream is a lie. Each character represents a part of the American Dream. Roman represents the lies behind it.
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Dimitri Rascalov represents the Dream taken to the uncomfortable extreme. Hard Work is an absolutely essential part of the American Dream. However, if that work is for the good or for the worst is yet to be determined. Some of the most notorious Criminals are absolute hard workers and extremely talented. You need a lot of talent, hard work and smooth talking in order to run a ponzi scheme which results in the loss of 18 billion dollars like Bernie Madoff. You need a lot of street smarts and hard work to take control of a crime syndicate and become the most famous gangster of all time while starting out as a mere bodyguard, like Al Capone. These people are notorious for their actions and how many people who are hurt by them. However, no matter what their impact on the world is, you can’t deny their work has most of the qualities of the American Dream, making a name for themselves based off of their hard work and most importantly their talent. What makes them different from the heroic examples you hear from your textbook is a lack of moral compass. They plead no allegiance to anyone but themselves, this absence of moral and principal is what separates the hero from the villain. Rascalov is of the same breed as them. This man works hard, gaining the trust of different underworld bosses, and becoming a key pawn in their struggles for more power. He gains more and more capital from them, makes himself more and more powerful, and betrays them at the moment he deems them unnecessary for his rise. He backstabs people with no regrets and this is a part of him. Taking whatever means necessary to complete his rise. Brutal, immoral, yes. It is effective. A lot of people all across the world progress up the social ladder by this means. Working hard, being smart are not guarantees for great things. The American Dream in theory is a great thing, but when taken too far like all things, it will only end in tragedy.
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Then, what does Niko Bellic represent? Niko represents the blood behind the American Dream. The American Dream looks glorious, but behind it lies many violent struggles. The country's independence requires a full scale war, in which more than 20 thousand people have died. Its brutal and ugly past against ethnic minorities and the natives can not be ignored as well. Every countries’ has its dark past. Some show remorse and acknowledge its sins, like Germany towards Nazism, well some, ignore it completely like Japan, and some even glorify it, like a certain country in Southeast Asia and a certain day in June, 1989. However much you want to deny it, each country has a bloodied history behind its ascendance to world power. Each of them leaves a trail full of blood behind. Niko is a symbol of that. His self righteous crusade only led to more and more violence. He claims to come to the city for peace, but from his wake, carnage and chaos ensues. The destruction of the Russian Mafia, the destruction of an Italian Mafia, a fractured family, the death of either the one man closest to him or the first true love he found in a distant place. Everything comes at a cost. The move we made to rise to the top, only ends in us losing ourselves or losing those we love. The most ironic end is the means often results in more of the things we would like to prevent. The Civil War was supposed to be the beginning of the emancipation of the black population, however, the Jim Crow laws passed shortly after the war, and the descrimination of them does not stop. The League of Nations was created by Woodrow Wilson to create an organization that can prevent war by encouraging International cooperation, however its inefficient failures result in the beginning of a much more severe war. These examples can be found in each country's history, as we strive to accomplish our dreams, the goal often can not justify the means.
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The ending is the most symbolic of them all. No matter which choice you choose, you chase down the villain to the Statue of Liberty, or named Statue of Happiness in the game. The duo's meaning is very apparent. The Statue of Liberty is built on Liberty Island. It is the first place many immigrants who arrive on boats will see. It signals the welcoming culture and atmosphere this immigrant country has to those that helped build its foundation. Another poetic point is its in-game name, the Statue of Happiness, which is the one thing which Niko seeks but fails to get, Happiness. That's why I always prefer the deal ending, despite the canon ending being revenge. Jimmy Pegorino simply does not offer much reason for the players to fight against him. He is not much of a threat as he is introduced very late into the campaign. Moreover, the motivation for the players to fight him is the death of Niko’s girlfriend, Kate, whose side quest is optional, meaning a lot of players spend very little time with her, so the motivation is lacking. With the villain uncertain and motivation non-existent for most players, this ending is simply not emotionally and narratively convincing. The deal ending is a whole different story however. Roman and Dimitri are the first character and villain introduced to the player respectively. This means a lot more to take him down as well. The player has a much better connection to Roman as well, under his wings for the first half of the game. This makes the ending one of the most emotional in the industry. When Niko gives a short sentence to Dimitri , stating Roman is a good man, it brings the message across very clearly, violence and the endless struggle will only end with even more violence. You can’t stop further wars with a war to end it all. The cycle will continue.
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Nuance is the last word I would use to describe a Rockstar game, however GTA IV somehow gives a nuanced portrayal of a post-911 America and a personal dissection of the American Dream. Gone are the cynicism and sarcasm, it is an emotional character's journey with a clear value. Games are not supposed to be morally correct. You can be murderous psychopath in RPGs like Fallout New Vegas, you can slaughter citizens with no tomorrow in city building games, like Cities Skylines, you can help the Third Reich earn more Lebensraum for their self appointed superior race, and dominate the world in strategy games like Hearts of Iron 4. The game can not stop you for that. However, despite the freedom given to players, and despite what mainstream media or Jack Thompson would tell you, GTA IV is more than murder, drunk driving and violence. It has a message, the violent acts to the top just are not worth it. GTA IV is much more than that.
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In a sea of soulless games, GTA IV manages to be something more. GTA IV was hated when
launched, thanks to the dramatic tone shift and lost features. Some of the vitriol was definitely justified, but most of it is casted away once we have the benefit of hindsight. GTA IV in 2021 is rightfully held as the masterpiece that it is. GTA IV manages to tell a ground and deeply emotional tragedy, with high stakes, fleshed out characters and a compelling plot. We don’t see many games set in the modern world, similar to the one we live in, that take itself so seriously nowadays. This and Watch Dogs 1 are the only games with a high budget that took its story in this direction I can’t count in recent times, and given what direction their sequel took, I suspect these efforts will be much more rare in the future, which is a shame. At least we will have the masterpiece to enjoy. Grand Theft Auto IV has forged itself a distinct image, and that may be the crowning achievement for the game and for those behind it.
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The rights to the American Dream photo belong to this website. The rights of the stills of The Great Gatsby (2013) belongs to Warner Bros. All rights to the promotional material and gameplay of Grand Theft Auto IV belongs to Rockstar Games.
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